Parashat Devarim - Shabbat Chazon
August 1, 1998
Rabbi Yisroel Miller
Before his death, the Torah records that Moshe "spoke to all Israel beyond the Jordan, in the wilderness, in Arava, opposite Suph, between Paran and Tophel and Lavan and Chatzeiros and Di Zahav."
What is this lengthy list of locations? Rashi, citing the Midrash, explains that these are reminders of the various places where the Jews angered G-d. They are referenced here, in Moshe's farewell address to the nation, as reproof for their past sins.
For example, "in the wilderness" cannot be taken literally, as they were no longer in the wilderness but in the plains of Mo'av about to enter the holy land.
Moreover, Rabbi Yochanan points out, places with names like Tophel and Lavan are not recorded anywhere in the text; they are instead names meant to signify the place where the Jewish people "criticized [taphlu] the manna, which is white [lavan]."
Nonetheless, the Talmudic principle that "a verse does not depart completely from its simple meaning" indicates that these were real places. What then is the plain meaning behind these names?
Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch suggests that when Moshe reviewed the events of their forty years in the wilderness, pointing out to the Jewish people the errors of their past in order that they glean lessons for the future, the people responded by giving names to various landmarks around the plains of Mo'av. By turning these landmarks into national historic monuments, the lessons associated with them would not be forgotten.
"These names," writes Rav Hirsch, "testify to national lapses, and by bringing to mind these errors of the past, were to awaken firm resolutions for a purer, more loyal future."
This pattern is an extension of the principle of the mitzvah of tzitzis, of which it is written: "You shall look at them, and remember all the mitzvos of the L-rd, and you shall do them."
Simply staring at the tzitzis will not automatically remind one of G-d's commands; nonetheless, the Torah tells us to use tzitzis as a reminder, to consciously look at a tangible object for the purpose of becoming inspired to an abstract idea.
In this week's Haftarah, G-d laments, "The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master's trough, but Israel does not know. My people do not reflect."
Rav Avigdor Miller points out that the prophet's unfavorable contrast of the Jewish nation's detachment from G-d to the loyalty of farm animals seems unfair. After all, oxen and donkeys act from instinct, not free will. Thus, they don't really make a conscious effort to know their owner.
But the prophet is teaching that we are to make use of the opportunity for inspiration by watching the loyal ox and donkey, just as Mishlei urges the lazy man to take lessons from the industrious ant.
The mind is guided by Torah knowledge; but the heart is awakened by concrete examples--even when they tell us truths we already know.
The Talmud states "All who mourn over Jerusalem will merit to see its rejoicing." Still, many Jews find it difficult to relate to the spirit of Tisha B'av. They do not have instinctive feelings of bereavement over the loss of the Temple, whose beauty they never saw and whose sanctity they never felt.
But even without immediate feeling, as long as we are loyal to the rituals of the day, to the concrete acts of mourning, eventually our inner spirits will be uplifted and we will come to experience the ultimate rejoicing of Klal Yisrael.
Rabbi Yisroel Miller
Rabbi Miller is the rabbi of Poale Zedeck in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
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